Who Was Mitchell Spry?

On January 11, 1871 in St. Cloud, Minnesota, Amelia Trotochaud, daughter of Pierre and Angeline Trotochaud of Benton County, was married to Mitchell Spry of Benton County by Father P.M. Stukenkemper. This according to official county records, which also indicated that Pierre and Angeline served as witnesses.  The History of Stearns County, Vol. I indicates that Fr. Stukenkemper was the priest who built the church of the Immaculate Conception in St. Cloud in 1868. That church stood near the location of the present Cathedral in St. Cloud.

So began the Spry family in Minnesota. Our family has long known that Mitchell Spry was born as Michel Surprenant in Canada, but changed his name when he came to the US. Other than this fact, our family knew very little about Mitchell. This has been my main motivation in researching our family history: where did the Sprys come from?

Fortunately, French Canadian genealogy is well documented through the records of Catholic parishes in Quebec, which go back to the 17th century.  The Surprenant name can be traced back to 1678, when Jacques Surprenant, who came to Canada as a French soldier, married Jeanne Denote, who came to Canada in 1665. Jeanne Denote was part of the filles du roi (Daughters of the King), young women, many orphaned, who were recruited and sponsored by King Louis XIV to help settle French Canada. The Surprenants settled in the Monteregie region of Quebec, located south of Montreal and north of Lake Champlain.

Michel Surprenant was born on December 9, 1840 to Joseph Surprenant and Marie Flavie Monet and baptized the same day at St-Edouard de Napierville church, a photo of which is shown below. Michel was the fifth of seven surviving children of Joseph and Flavie. Joseph passed away in 1847.

IMG_0265The US Census of 1850 finds the widowed Flavie and her children living in Mooers, New York, which is located just south of the Canadian border. Julien, the oldest at 22, is listed as a sawyer, and was likely supporting the family. The other siblings were Flavie (19), Peter (12), Mitchel (10), John (Baptiste) (8), and Selena (4). It is not clear why the family moved to New York, although this area had historically been where Canadian refugees from the Revolutionary War were resettled. They may have had family or friends there.

The next record I could find for Mitchell (Michel) was in the 1870 US Census in Benton County, Minnesota. I could find no other record for him in the US for the intervening 20 years, although I did find at least one other Michel Surprenant who was older. I was curious as to his whereabouts during these years and wondered whether he went back to Canada to avoid being drafted into the Civil War.

Meanwhile, I went through some information my mom had compiled about the Sprys and came across a letter from a man named Houde who claimed that Michel Surprenant had a son named Felix by a woman named Leocadie Brunelle. I checked Canadian genealogy records and came across the baptismal record for Felix, which was dated May 2, 1858. Michel and Leocadie were listed as his parents. He was baptized at a church called Ste.-Melanie d’Ailleboust in a village called Acton Vale located in the same region of Quebec where Michel Surprenant was born. Michel would have been 17 years old at the time and Leocadie age 30. Mr. Houde also has several other siblings to Felix listed in his family tree on ancestry.com.

A search of the 1861 Canadian census finds Michel Surprenant living in Acton Vale. Here he is listed in a household with the following:

Benonie Brunelle, farmer, age 61, male, married 1815

Marie D. Brunelle, age 56, female, married 1815

Benonie Brunelle, age 20, male, married 1860

Leocadie B. Surprenant, age 31, female

Felix Surprenant, age 2, male

Ser(aphine) F. Brunelle, age 19, female, married 1860

Flavie Surprenant, age 40, female

Delima Surprenant, age 7, female

Francois Brunelle, age 27, male, married 1850.

Church records indicate that Benonie and Marie were Leocadie’s parents and Benonie and Francois were her brothers. This

Interestingly, the census does not list Michel and Leocadie as married. Felix’s baptismal record also points to something unusual about this relationship. Most of the baptismal records, which typically were recorded in same format using the same terms for each, indicate the baby is the product of a “legitime mariage”. This means the church recognizes the parents’ marriage, most likely because they were married in the church.  In Felix’s case the record does not include the word “legitime”. This may mean Michel and Leocadie claimed to be married, but had no proof or were not married in the church. Felix apparently had an older sister, Delima. Because Michel would have been only 13 when she was born, it seems likely she is Felix’s half-sister from a previous relationship her mother had.

Recently I learned that I share DNA with two descendants of Felix Surprise, which confirms Mr. Houde’s claim that Michel Surprenant had a family in Canada. This leaves us with plenty of questions. Why did he leave them? Where was he between 1861 and 1870? Was the name change part of an effort to start over in the U.S., or was he hiding from something?

Felix appears to have spent the rest of his life in Wisconsin. He was married to Marie Barbeau in 1889 and together they had eleven children. In the 1900 US census records, which find Felix and his family in Taylor County, Wisconsin, he uses the name Surprenant. In the 1905 state census and in all subsequent records, he went by Felix Surprise. The last record for him is the 1940 US census, which lists him as a boarder along with two of his sons in Kenosha, Wisconsin. Mr. Houde’s family tree indicates he died in 1945.

It seems unlikely that Felix Surprise and Mitchell Spry met or corresponded as adults. Given that our family was not previously aware of Leocadie and Felix, it is unlikely that Mitchell Spry ever talked about them.

Until now, the Sprys did not know the story of where we came from. As far as I know, we have no stories about great-great grandpa Mitchell. Come to think of it, our family is not good at sharing the stories of our lives. Maybe Mitchell wanted it that way.

A Tragic Loss

Sauk Rapids Sentinel article

When I last posted on the Minnesota History page, my great-great-great-grandparents Pierre (Peter) and Angeline Trotochaud were homesteading on Little Rock Lake near present-day Rice, Minnesota in the 1850s and 60s.  The following is reproduced from the Sauk Rapids Sentinel, dated August 20, 1869.

A son of Peter Trotocheau of Little Rock Lake, ten miles above Sauk Raids, was killed by a Chippewa Indian, on Monday last. The circumstances as we have gathered them are as follows: Four Indians, said to be of the Mille Lac band, arrived at Little Rock a short time before the murder, and in the sports a wrestling match took place between one of them and Trotocheau, a young man about 18 years of age. He proved too much for the Indian and threw him. The young man seemed to think no more of the affair, and engaged in a game of cards. He was out in the open air, seated on the ground. One of the Indians laughed at his comrade for allowing the boy to throw him, and jeeringly asked him why he did not do as he said he would.  Upon this the murderer went into a lodge close by, procured a knife, approached the young man, and while his head was bent forward gave so heavy a blow with the knife on his forehead that it penetrated his head, splitting it nearly open, from the effects of which he died almost instantly. The murderer ran into the woods, pursued by some of the Halfbreeds residing there, accompanied by two other Indians; but he made his escape, and we believe he has not yet been heard from.  Mr. Osgood, Sheriff of Benton County, we understand, has gone up to the Chippewa Agency to get the assistance of the Agent in arresting the murderer.

The person murdered is quite a boy, but we never heard aught against him. His father is well known in our county as a good industrious Canadian, and has the reputation of being a very honest man. He is almost crazy over the tragical death of his sone, and we really hope that something will be done to bring on the murderer condign punishment.

These savages must be taught that they cannot commit such acts with impunity….The mother of the murdered boy is, we think, one-eighth Chippewa. She is a quiet, inoffensive woman, and much respected by those who know her. She is the mother of some eight or ten children, but we understand that this boy was her only son. This poor woman has the sympathy of all her acquaintances.

Life at Little Rock Lake

When we last visited Pierre and Angeline (Blair) Trotochaud, they were living at Little Canada on the outskirts of a young St. Paul in 1850. The next data point is 1856, when Pierre filed a land claim in what was to become Benton County. The claim was located next to his brother-in-law Antoine Blair, who had settled there sometime before 1849. These homesteads were located on the western shore of Little Rock Lake, about 1.5 miles east of the present-day town of Rice. The area was an important historical nexus, where the Oxcart Trail ran along the east side of the Mississippi River, where several trading posts were located and where Peace Rock, a granite outcropping along the river, marked the boundary between the Ojibwe and the Dakota nations.

At the time Pierre had proved up his homestead claim, he and Angeline had five children: Margaret, born in 1845, Sophia (1847), Peter (1850), Amelia, the future Mrs. Mitchell Spry (1852), and Eliza (1855). A second son, Moses, came along in 1857.

Minnesota had been a territory since 1849 and was on the verge of statehood. A final territorial census was completed in 1857, which listed “Pierre d’Autrechaud” as a hunter. This suggests Pierre was paid to hunt, probably to supply local merchants. This was a natural extension of Pierre’s previous life in the fur trade.  David Gilman, previously mentioned on this blog (see “Uncle Antoine”) owned a hotel at Watab and may have employed Pierre to supply the dining room. Pierre’s game bag probably included deer and waterfowl. Bison and elk had already been wiped out in most of Minnesota by that time. The continued loss of game in the area probably made this a short-lived occupation for Pierre.

The 1860 federal census lists “Pierre Trotocheau” as a farmer with real estate valued at $400 and personal property at $100. Oldest daughter Margaret, then 15, was listed as a domestic servant. Margaret probably worked at the Watab hotel, as there does not appear to be anyone in the area in 1860 who had the wherewithal to employ servants. Another son, Joseph, was born that year to Pierre and Angeline.

The 1860s were a turbulent time in the area. More and more settlers were moving in, increasing the demand for land. The Ojibwe were subject to continuing pressure to cede lands and move to reservations. Their old enemies the Dakota (Sioux) had already been moved on to reservations along the Minnesota River in southern Minnesota. In August 1862, The Dakota, fed up with their treatment by Indian agents and traders, started attacking white settlements beginning what became known as the “Sioux Uprising”.

The Ojibwe were approached by emissaries from the Dakota to join them in the war. Hole in the Day the Younger had made himself the leader of the Ojibwe, a position he inherited from his father Hole in the Day the Elder and maintained through oratory skills and force of will. Hole in the Day the Younger, who was based at Gull Lake, decided to join the Dakota and had sent his own emissaries to Leech Lake and Red Lake to rally the other bands. Hole in the Day was also the nominal leader of the Ojibwe people living in the large village between Watab and Little Rock Lake, near the Trotochaud and Blair homesteads.

Had the Ojibwe entered the war, white settlements along the Mississippi all the way down to St. Paul would likely have been attacked and a great many more lives lost. Credit is given to Father Francis Pierz, an Indian missionary priest, for convincing Hole in the Day to choose peace over war. Father Pierz had been a missionary to Indians around Lake Superior since the 1830s and had been assigned by the new bishop in St. Paul to minister to Indians and whites along the Mississippi for 100 miles above St. Paul. Father Pierz established a parish at Crow Wing in 1852 and parishes at Belle Prairie, Swan River and Sauk Rapids in 1853, St. Cloud and St. Joseph in 1854 and St. Augusta in 1855.

For the Trotochauds, the nearest parish would have been Sauk Rapids, about 12 miles to the south. I have not found any information to indicate whether the family were practicing Catholics. There may be mention of them in Fr. Pierz’s baptismal register, which may still reside at the Belle Prairie parish.

The Trotochaud family continued to grow at Little Rock Lake. A son, Antoine, was born in 1862 a daughter, Delphine, in 1866 and another daughter, Christine in 1869. According to the 1870 Census, the Trotochaud homestead was still valued at $400 but the personal property was now valued at $500. Around this time, Pierre Trotochaud was listed as one of the top producers of wheat in Benton County.

In spite of their prosperity, the Trotochauds experienced a shocking tragedy in 1869. More on this to follow in the next post.

Uncle Antoine

“On the shore of Little Rock Lake lived several families of French-Indian breeds. The had a few scrub ponies, cows and pigs.  The lived in log huts and farmed small tracts.  They hunted, fished, trapped and did nothing.   One breed was named Steve Baillou and another Antoine Blais, which became pronounced Steve Blue and Tony Blair by the neighbors.” – from notes of Nelson and Robert Flint, included in A Land Called Morrison, by Harold Fisher

Antoine Blair, one of the younger brothers of Angeline (Blair) Trotterchaud, had been living in the area since at least 1849.  The territorial census of that year listed him at 21 years of age and living in the “Sauk Rapids District” of “Benton Territory.” (Apparently, Benton County was not officially a county yet.)  Also counted in Antoine’s household were Charlotte, age 16 and Josette, age 4 months. Antoine’s occupation was listed as “none”.

In 1849, year Minnesota became a territory, less than 6000 non-Indians lived here, and only a few hundred lived north of St. Paul. Reading the census data, it appears that the nearest white people in the area were the missionaries Frederick and Elizabeth Ayer, who had established a mission and farm at Belle Prairie, some 20 miles up the Mississippi, in 1848. (Belle Prairie is the area where the Bellefuielle family first settled in the 1850s.)

In that same year an American Fur Company employee named David Gilman moved to the area and purchased a trading post established the previous year by Asa White. Another trading post was established by William Aitken just two miles north.  The place was called Watab, and was located near the mouth of a river by that name that emptied into the Mississippi.  Antoine may have been employed by Aitken or Gilman or at least traded with them.  Trading was done with a large Ojibwe village located near the outlet of Little Rock Lake. From 1848 to 1855, trade was also conducted with the Winnebago tribe, whose members were relocated to the area from Iowa for that brief period in a move orchestrated by businessman and trader Edmund Rice. This scheme was intended to open lands for settlement in Iowa while establishing the Winnebago as a buffer between the Ojibwe and their Dakota (Sioux) enemies.

Watab was also located along the Red River Oxcart Trail as it followed the Mississippi south to St. Paul.  The oxcart trail system was developed by Norman Kittson a few years before to facilitate trade between St. Paul and settlements on the Red River north of Pembina. The mostly Metis oxcart drivers, who were independent contractors, tended to carry cash, which drew the interest of the traders and other merchants who started settling the area.

In 1857,  according to General Land Office records Antoine obtained the deed to some 37 acres located along the west shore of Little Rock Lake, near present-day Rice, Minnesota. The Preemption Act of 1841 permitted “squatters” who were living on federal government owned land to purchase up to 160 acres at a very low price (not less than $1.25 per acre) before the land was to be offered for sale to the general public. To qualify under the law, the “squatter” had to be:

a “head of household”;
a single man over 21, or a widow;
a citizen of the United States (or an immigrant intending to become naturalized); and
a resident of the claimed land for a minimum of 14 months (Wikipedia).

The 1860 census recorded Antoine’s occupation as “Farmer”, which was typically used for homesteaders. However, the 1870 census lists him as a “Livestock Raiser”.  This suggests that Antoine, as well as one of his younger brothers listed the same way in the census, developed a business raising and selling draft animals.  These likely included oxen that were sold to the drivers on the oxcart trail.

The 1860 census indicates Antoine had five children, ranging from 2 to 9 years old, including Josette.  However, Charlotte is not listed. Another woman named “Gebel”, age 30 is listed. The name is a misspelling of Isabelle. According to Ancestry.com, her Indian name was Quanzee. It appears that Charlotte had passed away sometime in the previous 11 years.

Antoine and “Belle” raised their family at Little Rock Lake and apparently prospered there. I had the opportunity while doing research at the Benton County Historical Society to review papers associated with the disposition of Antoine’s property and settlement of his debts. David Gilman served as the executor until his death in 1885. The process was finalized by a man named Campbell. The file included dozens of slips of paper with transactions recorded in pencil. Antoine appeared to have good credit, as he did business throughout the area from Little Falls to Elk River.

My hunch is his success played a role in convincing Peter and Angeline Trotterchaud to move their young family there.  Peter purchased his land claim consisting of 39 acres next door to Antoine’s homestead in 1856.  (More to follow on the Trotterchauds in later posts) When Peter and Angeline and several of the Blairs moved to White Earth under the terms of the 1867 Treaty, Antoine and his family stayed behind.  Apparently, he was doing well enough that the prospect of receiving 160 acres of land and a fresh start did not appeal to him.

Antoine died in 1883 when he was crushed by an ox. According to his death certificate, the cause of death was falling off a wagon.  But according to Mary Ostby, Executive Director of the Benton County Historical Society, it was common to avoid blaming an ox for the death, as it would make the animal difficult to sell. Antoine’s death was noticed in the Sauk Rapids Sentinel, which noted “Tony” was well known in the area.  Even though he was a “French breed” who “did nothing,” he had earned at least some respect in his community.